Friday, March 20, 2015

LOC Prize for Erdrich, B&N's New Bags, Saul Bellow, Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough, Wicked Business by Janet Evanovich, and Along For the Ride by Sarah Dessen

Congratulations to a wonderful author!
Author/bookseller Louise Erdrich has won the Library of Congress Prize
for American Fiction, which will be awarded at the National Book
Festival in Washington, D.C., on September 5, the New York Times
reported. The award recognizes writers with "unique, enduring voices"
whose work deals with the American experience. Erdrich is the author of
Love Medicine, The Round House and Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country,
among other books, and owner of Birchbark Books and Native Arts

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said that Erdrich "has
portrayed her fellow Native Americans as no contemporary American
novelist ever has. Her prose manages to be at once lyrical and gritty,
magical yet unsentimental, connecting a dream world of Ojibwe legend to
stark realities of the modern-day."

I want one of these bags in a bad way.

B&N's New Bags Feature Classics' First Pages
 Barnes & Noble has redesigned its shopping bags
to feature the text of the first pages of classic books such as Moby
Dick, The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Alice in
Wonderland, according to Ad Age's Creativity, which commented: "The
designs are meant to promote Barnes & Noble as a physical destination
that provides a tactile shopping experience--part of which is the act of
leaving with a shopping bag."

"The bag serves as advertisement and reminder of the bookstore and thus
is an essential part of the brand's communications," Sagi Haviv, a
partner at Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, the design firm that created
the bags, commented. "However, this new shopping bag series does more
than promote the brand itself; it reflects the love of books and itself
provides a book experience--you can even start reading them on the way
B&N will begin distributing bags to its stores this month.

From Shelf Awareness on a new book about Saul Bellow: 
"Some essays are on Jewish writers: Sholom Aleichem (the "great Jewish
humorist"); Ben Hecht, "who roars like an old-fashioned lion"; Abraham
Cahan; and Bellow's good friend Philip Roth. In a 1959 piece on Goodbye,
Columbus, he calls the young Roth "skillful, witty, and energetic... a
virtuoso," and Bellow tended to be harsh on contemporary writers. His
favorites were the past masters Tolstoy, Mann, Proust and
Conrad--another immigrant writer. For Bellow, the most important element
in a novel (that "latter-day lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes
shelter," as he described it in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech) was
the "stature of characters." Bellow frequently commented on the absence
of such in modern literature. Two essays, more than 40 years apart, are
about Ralph Ellison: "He had a great deal to teach me."
Ah, the struggles only a bibliophile knows:
Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough was her last published novel before she died recently. I bought the novel because I gathered that it was a historical romance set after WW1 in Australia. What I didn't realize until I got the book was that it was written in passive construction and in an omniscient POV, so, though the characters were interesting, it was a tough slog through sticky prose in a slow, meandering plot. Here's the blurb:
Colleen McCullough’s new, romantic Australian novel about four unforgettable sisters taking their places in life during the tumultuous years after World War I is “just as epic as her ultra-romantic classic, The Thorn Birds” (Marie Claire).
Because they are two sets of twins, the four Latimer sisters are as close as can be. Yet each of these vivacious young women has her own dream for herself: Edda wants to be a doctor, Grace wants to marry, Tufts wants never to marry, and Kitty wishes to be known for something other than her beauty. They are famous throughout New South Wales for their beauty, wit, and ambition, but as they step into womanhood at the beginning of the twentieth century, life holds limited prospects for them.
Together they decide to enroll in a training program for nurses—a new option for women of their time. As the Latimer sisters become immersed in hospital life and the demands of their training, each must make weighty decisions about love, career, and what she values most. The results are sometimes happy, sometimes heartbreaking, but always…bittersweet.
Set against the background of a young and largely untamed nation, “filled with humor, insight, and captivating historical detail, McCullough’s latest is a wise and warm tribute to family, female empowerment, and her native land” (People).
 Though I found the sisters Latimer fascinating by various degrees, I thought their continual indecision, their waffling and petty cruelties and their horrible mother's interference in their lives to be off-putting. I loved the backdrop of the Australian hospital and the way it was run at the time, with so little money, by turns funny and fascinating.  I did have a hard time understanding the constant whining of the most beautiful sister, Kitty, about her beauty. All women struggle, and have throughout history, to be taken seriously and to be valued for more than their bodies and their looks. For her to be so horribly set against her looks that she was willing to maim or kill herself seemed a bit hysterical and ridiculous. Her sister Edda was the opposite, in that she let nothing phase her and was willing to enter into a marriage with a homosexual but wealthy man in order to get to medical school and become a surgeon. I also found the character of Grace to be annoying, as once she gets what she wants and marries a salesman, she discovers that when he's laid off, and she has to manage a home and raise and feed children on her own, she's incapable of taking charity or working, so she kvetches and rails against her fate until her husband commit suicide. Then, suddenly, she makes a total turnabout in character and goes to her sister's wealthy husband and begs him to give her money enough to start over in America and a stipend for her family so she doesn't have to work. Even after Kitty divorces/leaves this possessive troll of a husband, we are to believe that he still provides for Grace and her children. I found that unbelievable, almost as much as "Tufts" the scientific sister not wanting to marry or even have an affair with the man she obviously loves. I didn't find the book warm or wise, I found it bizarre and turgid. Still, I would give it a B-, and recommend it to those who find Australian history and love stories told between 1920-1934 interesting.

I found a copy of Janet Evanovich's Wicked Business at Goodwill during their 50% off sale, and though I have never been a fan of popular "Bestseller" authors who churn out several books a year, all formulaic, mostly mysteries with the same central sleuth, I picked this up because it was her first attempt at a paranormal romantic mystery, and I love good paranormal romance. This, however, was not good paranormal romance, it was a complete disaster. The prose is simplistic, not in a clear and concise way, but in a condescending fashion that really hacked me off by the second chapter. The characters are too stupid to live, especially the main character, Lizzy Tucker, who spends most of her time baking and b*tching and moaning about her partner, Diesel, whom she drools over constantly (not in an adult way, more like a Catholic schoolgirl way, where you almost expect her to draw hearts on her notebook with their initials in it) and who is supposed to be helping her solve the mystery of an ancient book of sonnets in order to get the "Luxuria" stone, just one of a set of stones each based on one of the seven deadly sins. Luxuria is, of course, Lust, and that provides the author with a host of jokes and asides that are so adolescent, they have pimples. Lizzy and Diesel actually help their nemesis Wulf and his ridiculous minion Hatchet, who talks in faux-medieval style and is, like everyone else, a complete rube, brainless and foppish. The book comes with two stickers, yes, you read that right, stickers, in the back of the book, but the book itself was such an abomination, with a transparent plot and idiotic characters, that no one thought to remove the stickers, probably out of embarrassment that they'd bought it in the first place. The book doesn't even have a decent ending, it just stops, with the characters having done nothing lasting, nor having solved the mystery or completed their ridiculous quest. If I were the kind of person to burn books (I'm not) I'd set a match to this piece of crap in a heartbeat. As it is, I just have to give it a D- and recommend that any reader with an IQ above 50 stay far away from this abomination. I doubt that I will ever touch another Janet Evanovich novel again.

Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen was another book that I got at the Goodwill sale, and fortunately, it made up for the foul taste that Wicked Business left in my mouth. Here is the blurb:
Studious good girl Auden, named for the poet, makes a snap decision to spend her summer before college at her father's beach house rather than with her mother, a professor whose bad habits include male grad students. Auden's parents divorced three years earlier, a split she's not yet over. Her remarried father has already produced another heir, a colicky baby named Thisbe (after a tragic figure from Shakespeare), with his young wife, Heidi, who owns a boutique. Feeling sympathy for stressed-out Heidi, Auden agrees to do the shop's bookkeeping, providing her with an instant social circle-the teenage clerks plus the boys from the neighboring bike rental, including hunky, wounded Eli. Both night owls, Auden and Eli bond when he coaxes her to experience childhood activities-bowling, food fights, learning to ride a bike-that her insufferable parents never bothered to provide. Auden's thoughtful observations make for enjoyable reading-this is solid if not "top shelf" Dessen: another summer of transformation in which the heroine learns that growing up means "propelling yourself forward, into whatever lies ahead, one turn of the wheel at a time." Publisher's Weekly.
Want a change from fictional neckbiters and backbiters? Welcome Auden West, a studious good girl about to be sun-kissed…Confiding and dry-witted, Auden's voice is like listening to your best bud while splitting a carton of Haagen-Dazs. Author Sarah Dessen beautifully captures that sense of summer as a golden threshold between past regrets and future unknowns, a time that shimmers with the sweet promise of now.
—The Washington Post 
I was surprised that Along for the Ride was so well written and that Auden, the protagonist, was such an intelligent and compassionate young woman. She is, in fact, more mature than her squabbling parents, especially her father, who seems to want the joy of children without the work or time it takes to raise them. Her mother is cold, calculating and controlling, and at the same time has an immature desire to know the details of her ex-husbands new marriage so that she can gloat about what a terrible parent he is/was/will be. Auden manages to rise above most of the fray, and eventually she gets her immature father to realize that he's missing out on the life of his baby daughter, just as he's missed out on most of her life. The parts of the book where Eli shows Auden the secret cafe within the laundromat, and where they go on overnight adventures was sublime. I enjoyed Auden's blossoming, and her instinct to help those in need was lovely and heartfelt. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to those who enjoy a good coming of age YA novel.

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